The beginning of the 90s were a strange time for Nintendo. Coming off their first real hit console in the “Nintendo Entertainment System”, they were about to release the “Super Nintendo” to combat Sega's “Genesis” console. And yet, the transition from one popular console to another is where many companies before them had stumbled and fell hard. Atari really only had one mega-popular console in the “Atari 2600”, and stumbled with the 5200. Mattel never got a true successor to their “Intellivision” console out of the gate, with the Intellivision II just being a revision of the original, and an Intellivision III being cancelled. In fact, the only company and console that could make the claim of having a successful transition to the next console was...well...the very console Nintendo was competing against. The Sega Genesis came along after their prior console, the “Sega Master System”, sold a respectful amount but was never close by any definition to Nintendo's figures. On top of that, the public was not so warmed-up to the idea of having to buy an upgraded console. They saw it as a cash grab, and wondered why Nintendo couldn't just keep making games on a system many had already bought. This “upgrade” was seen as Nintendo's way of “getting greedy” to a decent amount of people.
So it was important for Nintendo to do this transition correctly. They couldn't quit producing games for the prior console “cold turkey”, as the sales were still high for the NES. But the SNES was already released and selling gangbusters in Japan, and they had to have something to curb Sega's Genesis. So they began releasing new games on both consoles; some would be released exclusively to one system or the other, while others would be released on both systems simultaneously.
Some of those games, such as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles; Tournament Fighters” had a MUCH smaller print run on the NES and are now highly sought after by collectors.
Today's article is, however, NOT over one of those games.
Released at the tail end of 1990, “StarTropics” was unique in several ways. One truly unique aspect of the game was that it was released in North America first, and in fact there was NO official Japanese version of this game on the Famicom (Japan's version of what we know as the “Nintendo Entertainment System”). This wasn't an uncommon practice for third-party companies making games for a videogame system, and is a common practice today with the renaissance of American studios in the 21st century. But in the dawn of the 90s, for Nintendo themselves to leave their home-country followers in the dark was especially noteworthy. Even to this day, Japan has yet to see an official release of this game, even on digital storefronts like Nintendo's “Virtual Console” and “eShop”. And I think that's a damn shame.
I personally played this game on the Nintendo Wii Virtual Console first. I had it recommended to me, but hadn't played it, nor did I know what the game was about. I was in for a pleasant surprise to be certain. There was even a decent chunk of time where I believed StarTropics was the best game in the entire NES library. Now, while I don't believe that's true anymore, this game is definitely something worth beholding, for its peaks and its valleys.
One look at the story and it's easy to tell it was made with American audiences in mind. The player takes control of “Mike”, a teenage baseball player from Seattle, Washington. He is on a vacation to visit his Uncle, a scientist names Dr. Steven Jones, on an island in the South Seas. However, when he arrives on “C-Island”, he finds his uncle is nowhere to be found. Mike obtains a yo-yo (strangely, the name was changed to “Island Star” in future digital releases) and goes on a quest throughout 8 chapters in order to solve the mystery of his Uncle's disappearance.
StarTropics' gameplay will seem familiar to fans of The Legend of Zelda at first glance. The overworld view is reserved for visiting islands and towns. In this mode, all you're really able to do is talk to villagers and gain some insight on what your next goal is. Sometimes, you'll need to solve puzzles in this mode, with some entire chapters taking place in this mode exclusively. You won't need to worry about attacking or taking damage. You'll simply explore and try to figure out where to go next.
Upon entering one of the game's caves however, is where the action picks up. The game still takes place from a top-down perspective, but it's zoomed in considerably. At this point, the player is free to attack (and be attacked). This is where the true meat of the gameplay is. Mike moves on an invisible grid, and can walk in the four cardinal directions. If you have ever played a Pokemon game that was released before the 3DS, this mechanic will seem familiar. One caveat to this, however, is that Mike will need to face the direction he's going in before he walks in that direction. It's very snappy and crisp, and doesn't flow as loose and freely as a “Legend of Zelda”. This takes some getting used to at first, but once you get it, you're in business.
And the puzzles in this game are built with this mechanic in mind. There are often blocks that disappear and reappear in a pattern, and require quick movements. It's hard to imagine these puzzles working well if the movement didn't work on this grid. But since it does, you can simply jump quickly and take faith that you'll land in a predetermined spot. In one particular point, the room is completely black and across a gap are enemies that will charge Mike. However, since the gap is there, they stop just short. One of these enemies will stop within jumping range, revealing where Mike can cross the gap. That's just a couple of examples of how the game is crafted with this control scheme in mind. It's one of the crowning achievements of StarTropics, and why “StarTropics II; Zoda's Revenge” whiffs considerably (we'll get to that one another day).
I must be honest, when I first played this game, it made me feel like I was playing a game that was closer to a “Legend of Zelda” sequel than the actual sequel, “Zelda II; The Adventure of Link”, was. It played in a very similar way to the original Zelda title, but had some twists and turns all its own. And one look at it shows it's definitely superior from a technological sense. The sound is more dynamic than the original Legend of Zelda, even if the songs themselves aren't as memorable. The graphics are more technically demanding and detailed than Zelda's, and even moreso than Zelda II. In fact, some of the puzzles in the game can be downright headscratchers. And while you can often open the door to the next room by clearing the room of enemies, there's often hidden switches that lead to power-ups or alternate paths, or sometimes beginner/first-timer death traps, an oft-cited shot at this game.
Chapter 1 eases you into this play-style softly enough. There's little hand-holding, but the puzzles are rather free of frills (sans one DIRTY beginners trap), and the boss of the first level requires more than just blunt force trauma, but isn't a real stretch to defeat. Chapter 2 takes a noticeable step up in difficulty, but the boss introduces you to needing a specific item to defeat the boss. It's not impossible to defeat the boss relying on just reflexes, but using a specific item at the right time can hand you the key to victory. Again, it often rewards players for thinking outside of the box.
Chapter 3, however, is where this game hits one hell of a wall. Now would be a good time to discuss this game's difficulty. It's a hard game, to be certain. It's not up there with the Mega Mans and the Ninja Gaidens, but anyone picking this game up better accept that this game, at times, will kick your ass, and not always in a fair-and-square manner. Chapter 3 is where this truly becomes evident. Many puzzles require precise movement and timing, often without much time to examine and break down the situation at hand. It also doesn't help that a handful of enemies in this chapter are real tanks; you can take a few hits from them, but they can take MANY more hits from you. It also doesn't help that the game requires you to clear 3 caves, and a difficult boss before you can move on to Chapter 4.
This would be easily forgivable if later chapters ever hit this degree of difficulty. And they do; the final two chapters of the game are a true test of skill for certain. But at that point, you're at the end-game with upgraded items and plenty of health. I'm perfectly fine with a classic game that requires near-perfection in execution at the end-game. But we're not talking “the grand finale”, we're talking “I've only beaten the first two chapters and I'm still trying to understand how this game operates”. This will become evident once you do beat Chapter 3, and find that while the game remains challenging, the challenge never hits that Chapter 3 crescendo until Chapter 7.
And on that music-based noun usage, the songs in this game are par for the NES at the point in its lifespan that it was released. Multi-layered, somewhat repetitive but without any powerful notes that make the repetition obnoxious. It's all pretty mellow, tropical music. Other than the cave/dungeon theme itself, there's really not much in the way of music to make a big hooplah about. It doesn't try to make itself known for it's music.
And that leads us to what many collectors might recognize StarTropics for; “The Letter”. At one point in the game, Mike enters his grandfather's submarine and has to enter coordinates to continue on. Earlier in the game, Mike is told to “dip the letter into water” to reveal the coordinates. However, you can search the game up and down, backtrack to previous chapters, and you will never ever find a “letter” item. The letter the game speaks of is, in fact, an actual letter contained within the instruction booklet of the game. It's a letter written to Mike inviting him to C-Island and his uncle's laboratory. However, the bottom half of the letter is seemingly blank, except for a signature from “Uncle Steve”. Following the directions from the game, dipping this letter in the water reveals the coordinates required to move on in the game.
Some have theorized what the point of such a 4th-wall breaking measure is. Was it to simply add to the game? This was well before Metal Gear Solid's puzzle requiring the back of the CD case and its memory card reading boss, “Psycho Mantis”. It still stands as a pretty novel concept in gaming to this day, with copies requiring “The Letter” to be considered a complete copy, beyond just the typical cartridge, box, and instruction booklet. Some believe it was included as an anti-rental measure; Nintendo had major malfunctions with the concept of renting videogames at the time, believing it took money from their pockets. Anyone that got stuck at this point without the letter wasn't likely (in theory) to just “guess” the three-digit number. The Nintendo Power Hotline was eventually flooded with so many calls requesting directions to get past this point. Many gamers either couldn't understand the fourth-wall breaking concept, or had no access to the letter. It eventually hit the point that Nintendo's own magazine, “Nintendo Power”, printed the hidden contents of the letter in their own magazine; the code being “747” (a number that, if you're knowledgeable of aviation, you might try naturally anyway). As well, in the digital re-release of the game on the Wii's Virtual Console service, “the letter” was included in digital form, including an option to “dip” the letter to reveal the code. A smart way to work around the issue for a digital release, but nowhere near as neat as having the letter itself must have been.
If you wish to obtain a copy yourself, you're in luck. StarTropics is a common game on the NES, and can be found for less than $10 in fairly short order, even in the current market where well-known NES games are being marked up. In fact, a little searching can uncover a complete-in-box copy for a decent price; just be sure to check for that letter. And in my opinion, it's VERY easily worth that price. In the end, StarTropics is definitely an anomaly in the NES library. It's far from perfection, and falls just short of being an elite NES game due to its violent shifts in difficulty and a playstyle that some struggle to get around (the controls have been seen as a common “sticking point” for a decent handful of gamers). But StarTropics knows what it wants to be, and pulls it off well enough to be worth the easy search for it.
**** - 4 OUT OF 5